What if the terrifying denizens of the infant Uncanny Valley were put to good use for once? What if Twilight’s bug-eyed Renesmee and American Sniper’s stiff plastic baby were intentional aesthetic choices meant to inspire anxiety? Servant, the gripping Apple TV+ series from writer/creator Tony Basgallop and pilot/penultimate episode director M. Night Shyamalan, is all about the horror of inviting a new presence into your house, be it Cronenberg baby anxiety or the equally ancient fear of a younger woman from outside the fold.
When Philadelphia parents Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose) hire a weird nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), it never seems fine. Things are never normal. There is a ghost in the house. That’s because Leanne has been hired to take care of a reborn doll. These hyper-realistic dolls, morphed and sculpted uniquely to match a real baby, can serve a variety of purposes. The Turners’ helps them cope with the loss of their child, Jericho, at thirteen weeks. Reality is simulated for therapeutic purposes. Until it’s not. The first episode ends with a very real cry from a very real baby and uh, where did HE come from?
Shyamalan, who also produced the series, gets pushed up front here because while Basgallop’s script is solid and idea is spooky, it’s Shyamalan’s aesthetic, inventiveness, and tempo in the pilot that set the standard while cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (from various Shyamalan films and Us) creates a static, doll house-like artificiality to the house’s insides. They keep the show grooving through its introductory period at an upsetting, anxious pace.
Servant isn’t scary, really, but its mysteries make for an enthralling nightmare. If you were dreaming about it, it’d reflect the opening titles. A long slow walk down a hallway leads to a closed door, which opens just enough to get a glimpse of what might be a baby and then—oops! You woke up. You’re not sure what was wrong with that last look, but you can’t shake it all morning. Servant is like that. Its horror references are child-based, relationship-heavy, and demonic. Sometimes the touchstones lean towards one element (the tactility of mother!); sometimes they go for all three: Rosemary’s Baby fans, this is for you. It’s not like a replay of that same gaslighting, though. The delusion is entrenched already, cemented with trauma, but still treated as vital—as real as Dorothy’s mastitis. When life in the home changes, and the doll might no longer be a doll, well that’s real, too.
But it’s not just the spooky baby stuff. Sean’s a chef, so Shyamalan and company also throw in a hefty amount of food porn for those longing to see haute cuisine for nothing more than fancy animals tearing apart less fancy animals. If Hannibal made horror food the height of bloody elegance, Servant rips it down to its fleshy ferality. The skinning of an eel. The violence of a cork pop. (Still looks tasty, though.)
Shyamalan and the other directors (Nimród Antal is another standout) make Basgallop’s vicious script more actualized and smoothing out the sillier moments. This turns the small, play-like cast and setting into an off-putting, aggressive, classist take on Lynchian, over-the-top Americana. Big toothy smiles and a large vacant home, spread out to their most grotesque dimensions by an intimidated lens. Some of the weaker points come from the class difference. Leanne hails (or claims to hail) from the Midwest, with backcountry Wisconsin views of sinfulness and faith. Sometimes the dynamic between her naive votary and the modern, urban couple work to enhance the mood. More often, it’s silly or even off-putting.
That stings even more since it’s clear that Basgallop can put off-puttingness to intentional good use. It’s not all just spooky baby stuff. He’s crafted deep characters who’re built as talented professionals (something that rarely happens when horror is even nearby the genre) in a complex relationship, with Kebbell’s adept skeeziness put to great effect here.
The small screen seems to give Kebbell smarter roles, with more nuance than the big broad villains thrown his way in film. He thrives with abrasive, not evil. Ambrose, whose character is a local TV news reporter, is immediately arresting and makes facial expressions like she’s Jim Carrey in the ‘90s (this rules), while Free is perfectly stoic and eerie (which also rules). More than dead-eyed stares (but not by much), her performance as Leanne hides calculating judgment in her unnerving glances. It makes her strange character seem fascinating even when the script can’t quite keep interest up. Rupert Grint as Dorothy’s brother, Julian, is as scummy and as boozy as Sean, but where Kebbell wears his acid well with as a hot, mean, tattooed chef, Grint is almost as fun as a bleary, sad-eyed, increasingly unhinged skeptic. When Tony Revolori shows up intermittently as Sean’s trainee, it’s an eccentric smorgasbord that makes you feel as nice as you can considering the circumstances.
As things begin to get weird—with the first uneven glimpses of Leanne’s strangeness coming in fits and spurts—Sean keeps acquiring physical maladies of increasing severity while he and Dorothy see their tense relationship, strangely, soften. It’s unhealthy, whatever this is, but pressing on it only makes it worse. Over eight of its half-hour episodes, various metaphors rise and fall (sometimes working wonders, other times distracting from the well-crafted genre flavor), but the main idea of watching a couple suffer for taking the easy way out of death, trauma, guilt, and loss is never lost in this still mostly fun fairy tale. Servant is an unfocused yet ultimately creepy good time with enough character and charm to keep its hazy nightmare from lulling you to sleep.
Servant premieres Thursday, November 28th on Apple TV+
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.